“Bridesmaids” (2011): poop & fat jokes for women (and they’re funny)

14 May 2011

When I checked the showtimes online for Bridesmaids, here’s what the theater website told me:

This spring, producer Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad) and director Paul Feig (creator of Freaks and Geeks) invite you to experience Bridesmaids

And to think I was going to see it because it’s a movie written by women (Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo) and stars six of them. Hollywood has just discovered that not only are women funny, but audiences will flock to see them (the movie took in $7.8 million yesterday alone, coming in a close second to Thor 3D) — so, to smooth the way, it puts up a lot of male boldface names in the movie’s ads.

Yet I left the theater with the realization that, in terms of tone at least, this film has Judd Apatow all over it. In fact, if one fed the scripts for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad into a supercomputer, one would find there’s an Apatow formula that strikes a balance between poop jokes, awkward sex scenes, eccentric secondary figures, and genuinely affecting sentimental moments between the main characters. Am I saying that Bridesmaids is just warmed-over Apatow? Not at all: this film is in many ways a total delight. Placing those elements into a film about the biggest chestnut of all female-oriented plots — the run-up to your best friend’s wedding — seems, to me at least, much better than just a female version of Apatow’s own clichéd plots (high school boys on a quest for alcohol and girls, etc.).

Maybe I’ve just been reading too many articles about Hollywood’s slow acknowledgement that audiences want to see women being funny, but it was hard for me to see it without that topic in mind, as if the film was trying to make a point. (Remember when Hollywood discovered, via American Pie in 1999, that women liked sex? Gee, thanks for small favors.) Previously, Hollywood has tended to hold to a three-part philosophy concerning female humor, as Tad Friend notes in his piece about the comedian Anna Faris in The New Yorker:

  • Women don’t have to be funny.
  • Also, women aren’t funny.
  • Really, they’re not.

If nothing else, Bridesmaids blows those concepts out of the water. The women in this film use every comic trick in the book — they run the gamut from subtle to broad and display great gifts for physical comedy when it’s required. Plus, the film wins prizes from me for taking apart the wedding industrial complex fairly handily, especially considering I’d just spent an hour on the phone with a friend suggesting plausible-sounding excuses for skipping a bridal shower.

But I also don’t want to oversell this movie. It’s exactly what you think it’s going to be, not much more. As with last year’s Easy A, this movie is funny, alternately gross and sweet, and features some surprisingly touching moments; Kristen Wiig in the lead role knows when to trot out her Saturday Night Live absurdities and when to rein them in; and the other leads (Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne) are terrific, while Wendi McLendon-Covey (the blousy blonde from Reno: 911) doesn’t get quite enough screen time for my liking. For two much more diametrical responses, read the smart back-and-forth about this film on the Bitch website between Kjerstin Johnson and Kelsey Wallace.

My strongest criticism boils down to the fat jokes. I love the actress Melissa McCarthy — she played the best friend on The Gilmore Girls and more recently had a brief and celebrated run on Mike & Molly, a show I never saw but which got a lot of love from people whose opinion I respect. Those same writers have been divided on her appearance here. Melissa Silverstein of Women & Hollywood loved the film and especially McCarthy, saying “she shows a woman who is fun and sexual and raunchy and real and ready to beat the crap out of you on a moment’s notice. That’s what was so great about her character, you had no idea what was coming next.” On the other hand, Bitch‘s Johnson and Wallace decried the “lazy” jokes levied at the “unrefined fat woman” who burps out loud, waddles through a couple of scenes (har, har!), and comes across as butch. (McCarthy has explained in interviews that she modeled her character on the abrasive, loud, yet oddly appealing Food Channel star, Guy Fieri — a decision I find brilliant.)

I’m going to take for granted that readers of this blog are enlightened enough to be aware of fat phobia, unlike the 20-something woman jackass in the theater next to me who squeaked, “Gross!” at the sight of one of McCarthy’s big ankles. Obviously none of us wants to see a movie that gets cheap laughs from the sight of a fat woman. But equally obviously none of us would say that fat women should be kept out of comedies, or that they’re not allowed to be funny, or that they’re not allowed to use physical humor. Silverstein puts it nicely: “Fat women never have fun in films. They might laugh but always when people are laughing at them” — whereas in this one McCarthy’s character is having a blast, moving forward with that Fieri-like assuredness that renders impossible a simplistic reading of her character. It’s important to note that at a crucial moment in the film, McCarthy’s character steps forward to show a truly heroic self-awareness, competence, sensitivity, and dedication to her friends (in fact, it sounds as if McCarthy herself is responsible for that plot development). So I return to the question: do I forgive the few bad fat jokes because overall we laugh with McCarthy and appreciate her character so much?

In the end, I remain divided on whether the fat jokes ruin Bridesmaids. I’m still persuaded enough by a Silverstein-like appreciation for McCarthy’s character and performance to refrain from a full-throated complaint. Perhaps this is Hollywood’s first experiment with enlightened fat phobia, pace Susan Douglas’s enlightened sexism: that is, the film tries to tell us that it’s okay to regress back to fat jokes because the fat woman is a successful and comparatively three-dimensional character. Let’s face it: I laugh at some of those enlightened sexist ads on TV — first and foremost the Old Spice dude who says, “Look again! It’s an oyster with two tickets to that thing you love!” That extra layer of irony seems to excuse the fat jokes because they’re not the old, unenlightened fat jokes. It’s a fat phobia that seems to accept — even celebrate — the fat woman on the surface, but in reality it repudiates fat people and keeps them in their place as the comic sidekicks. Maybe.

25 Responses to ““Bridesmaids” (2011): poop & fat jokes for women (and they’re funny)”

  1. tamcho Says:

    Plan on seeing it Monday, after working my butt off this weekend…if I can persuade my chronically indecisive friend to go.

    Will let you have my brief thoughts after…poop and all:)

  2. I, too, had a disappointing moment when I overheard two younger women (late teens? 30s? I couldn’t tell) talking about how scary the Megan character was. And, from the context, it wasn’t that her wacky unpredictability was the scary part. It was how she looked.

    Overall, I was hoping to laugh harder and longer at the movie, because, as a feminist, I love to laugh. I did take some small pleasure in the fact that I several times laughed – loudly – at things no one else did, and that seemed to make the man 2 seats down a little uncomfortable.

    • Didion Says:

      It wasn’t a laugh-out-loud kind of movie for me, either, but I still thought it was funny — and I thought Wiig did a nice job of being the lead. I don’t watch a whole lot of SNL but she never struck me as someone I might warm up to as much as I did.

      That said, I was in a packed theater full of women of all ages, and the place was uproarious. Which always makes me feel pretty good, even if I’m not contributing a whole lot of the guffaws. Somewhere I found a nice interview with the director who said something like, “It’s not a wedding movie, it’s an emotional breakdown movie,” which I think was a nice clarification — and the film does a good job of making that breakdown both funny and sympathetic. It’s a tough balancing act, I think.

  3. tamcho Says:

    Went to an matinee today. It was surprisingly packed. My friend whispered: why isn’t everyone at work?!:)

    The noisy laughs started early all around us, although at times we were the only ones cracking up (some of the airplane scenes were hysterical);and on one occasion, one lone man guffawing.

    Neither of us were impressed by the scatological humour (tiresome fratboy stuff, Judd Apatow’s fingerprints all over it). I did love Annie’s drunken parody of Helen.

    The Megan character was problematic. Have no idea what they were trying to do: uglifying and butching her up was just weird. And I don’t think its because I was “uncomfortable” with it.

    Mostly it was fun to let loose for a couple of hours; enjoyable and diverting. And it managed to portray friendships between women with some complexity.

    So yes, low brow, yet not entirely.

    • Didion Says:

      Yeah, for most of the early part of the film Megan reads as that really weird sister of the groom. Fat, clueless, the one they had to invite to join the wedding party. All the more reason that I loved the intervention scene, even as that’s the one that leads me to the “enlightened fat phobia” speculation.

      Here’s a question for you readers: would you rather see a fat woman using her weight to be funny (or try to be), or a skinny woman making a lot of jokes about dieting and/or failing at dieting (like Liz Lemon and her meatball subs)?

  4. rory Says:

    Were there any fat jokes like “she might sit on me”?

    • Didion Says:

      Not that I remember. But there’s one in which she burps loudly and says, “I want to apologize — I’m not even confident of which end that came out of” that they stuck right in the trailer, it’s so high-larious.

      • JE Says:

        I’ve been wondering about that joke for days now. I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t really judge it properly–not knowing the scene, the expressions and reactions of characters, etc.

        It’s just weird if it’s only a fat joke. Speaking as a human being (a species known for its occasional farts and burps–fart jokes are attested in some of the earliest literature from ancient Greece, after all), it’s pretty damn obvious what end the emission emerged from. 99.9% of the time it’s obvious to everyone within earshot.

        And *everyone knows that.* Fat or not, it’s obvious. So where’s the joke?

        If I read the joke without reference to any particular movie and was asked to guess what kind of character would say it, I might say that the joker would be the stereotypical slob character in a guy movie. The old friend of the main characters. Maybe he went to high school with them, but they followed society’s rules and got respectable, well-paying jobs, while the slob dropped out. He spends enough of his time drinking beer and watching football that he’s a little flabby and unkept, but he’s smart. The audience laughs at him, but also admires him. I’d probably think of someone like Jack Black saying a joke like that.

        The joke makes sense in a stick-it-to-the-man kind of way. Screw you and your polite society and and your fashionable clothes and your overly clever dinner-party banter.

        He burps loudly, but then feels that it wasn’t crude enough to properly insult the annoying polite society around him, so he makes the joke. (A) to mention the fart he failed to produce, and (B) to screw polite society by raising the strange image of someone so crass or slobbish or drunk that they can’t tell the difference between a fart and a burp.

        So the joke is mostly to laugh (with the slob character) at the reaction of the asshole polite society types around him.

        The interesting thing is what happens when a woman says it. The slob character is typical of men, not women. In another post you talk about Rosanne Barr and how people reacted to her.

        To what extent can the typical audience see a woman as the slob character and retain the admiration that they often have for men in the role. It’s much trickier. A Jack Black type is widely celebrated (a hero for being as unkept as we all like to be on occasion), but Rosanne Barr? I wonder how much of the audience withdraws from her because unconsciously they are nervously wondering who will be cooking their food and doing the laundry.

        And I fear that the fat-hating and fat-fearing people in the audience see Megan *only* as the fat character, without much of the “screw you, polite society” aspect (if the filmmakers were trying to give her that aspect). And as merely a fat joke, the joke fails.

        And yes, clearly I am spending much to much time thinking about this when I should be revising my syllabus for my summer class, which starts very VERY soon.

      • Didion Says:

        Yeah, and producer Judd Apatow for one loves shlubby fat guys. Melissa McCarthy plays the character as a kind of eccentric tomboy (which reads as butch at first), so in some ways she’s a replacement for the usual shlubby fat guy.

        My sense of that joke is conflicted. It’s kind of funny. It’s followed by a scene that goes about as far with poop jokes as one can go — and does so with all six characters. In short, it’s yet another case of enlightened fat phobia!

  5. […] – Someone else agrees that while the poop/vomit worked, the fat jokes weren’t kosher […]

  6. hey!

    thanks for writing this. the movie has been hanging over me for the past few days and i have no idea what to do with it.

    it’s not only the megan character, it was everrrry fat woman depicted in the film. the tennis player is shown as uncoordinated and slow and the roommate is shown as stupid, lazy and kind of needy.

    it feels so out of character for Melissa McCarthy that i wonder why she took the role. she was so badass as sookie in gilmore girls…and so badass as Molly in a show that finally made people look at fat people and get over it…and now this…the guy fieri thing is funny…it just makes me feel like fat positivism got knocked down a peg.


    • Didion Says:

      Jeez, I’d blocked out the roommates. Argh.

      I’m still on the fence about McCarthy, though. I thought she was terrific, yet I still left the theater with a dirty feeling.

  7. […] found in Bridesmaids.  Such was the consensus of the many rah-rah — well,  rah-rah with reservations reviews of Bridesmaids, written by Kristin Wiig under the patronage of Judd Apatow.  Seeing it, […]

  8. servetus Says:

    Did you see this? http://centerofgravitas.blogspot.com/2011/05/always-bridesmaid-never-feminist.html

    Loved Maya Rudolph, LOVED Chris O’Dowd. Not clear on Melissa McCarthy, except that she looks different from central Wisconsin than from central Texas (not sure the film intended this). Disliked all the fart humor, just NOT interested in women who are as crude as men — if I wanted fart humor, would watch a boy movie. Liked the msg of the movie in general, though 2 pts of Shiner and the Wilson Philips tune probably skewed my view …

  9. servetus Says:

    OK. After having slept on it I think what I didn’t like and what is nagging me is the unkindness of the film, i.e., the whole “look how ridiculous / annoying / disgusting people are” tone of everything. That’s just not where I am at the moment.

    • Didion Says:

      That’s interesting…I know what you’re talking about, but I had a slightly different reading: I found it surprisingly touching compared with most broad comedies out there. I liked the portrayal of friendship between Maya Rudolph and Kirsten Wiig’s characters — that seemed real. I liked the fact that Wiig was feeling sorry for herself (been there). I think what the film is trying to do is capture that Apatow-brand mixture of yuks and touching moments.

      Maybe it *is* where you are right now….?

  10. sara Says:

    I thought McCarthy was the best actress out of the bunch and Wiig was the worst. I am still waiting for Wiig to be funny. My husband and I rented it and had to fast forward through Wiig. The SNL faces and antics get tiresome. The only time I saw her be a good actress was when she played a character who was not supposed to be funny.

    • Didion Says:

      I also thought McCarthy was great — I was just nervous about her material. But it warms my heart to see how differently you feel about it. I will say, though, that I’ll bet you would have felt yet another way if you’d seen it in the theater with a room full of screaming and amazingly appreciative audience members. I’ve never warmed up to Wiig on SNL, but I found her characterization and her self-defeat incredibly appealing in this film, maybe because the woman next to me was sooooo eager for her to wind up with the cute Irish cop.

  11. […] Likewise Melissa McCarthy, who had a sweetly goofy role in Gilmore Girls (2000-07) and displayed great broad comic genius in Bridesmaids (2011); currently her sitcom Mike and Molly (2010-present) is struggling with the […]

  12. Sandrine Says:

    Happy to see that you like the film too Didion, except jokes about fat people. Me too I’m not sure I like those. But your point of you about maybe it was about the fat lady to laugh about it, instead of having people laughing of her. Why not. Let’s hope it’s that. Because, if not, it’s easy chip jokes.
    Anyway, still a pleasure to read your reviews. take care. 🙂

  13. @Rob Says:

    I have listened to pod casts about this movie. Melissa McCarthy really created that character and took her in a whole another direction to the point where she thought she didn’t get the part.

    The gross out poop scene wasn’t written by the female writers, it was written by Apptew (sp?) the producer. They had written a scene in which Annie runs out of the bridal salon into the forest where she encounters Christain Bale and he makes her tea and brushes her hair which to me is waaay funnier.

    They had several ver of each scene and shot them all. I saw this movie at home, I wondered if I saw it in the theater with women I would have laughed out loud more. I have mixed feelings about this film, but I am happy that a female centric comedy made lots of $$$ at the box office.

    As for McCarthy, I really liked her in this role and liked the fact she was quirky and so okay with being quirky. To me she embrassed herself, warts and all and I liked that. As for the audience reaction to her, we place way too much emphasis on perfection and no longer appreciate real beauty.

    • Didion Says:

      Seeing it in the theater was a mixed bag, but I probably did laugh out loud a lot more because of the company. But I also heard more people viewing McCarthy as just a big joke. Yikes.

      Now I want to see it again and see whether I can see it without that guffawing in my head. I suspect — from the many accolades she’s received — that I’d see it far differently.

      That’s really interesting about the gross out scene not being Mumalo/Wiig’s writing. As much as I’m really, really weary of those neurotic, single women characters (see recent piece on the film Broken English), I found Wiig truly appealing in this part. And I just loved the scene when McCarthy basically whacks her over the head.

      Now, let’s hope all those journalists don’t forget that women can be funny again.

  14. […] physical humor doesn’t have to descend to fat jokes. Oh, excuse me — I meant enlightened fat […]

  15. […] to reconstruct now. Maybe in 30 years we’ll shake our heads at the hubbub over 2011′s Bridesmaids (whoa! women can be funny? and men will file out to see a film about women?) in the same […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: